TOGETHER WE'RE HEAVY
Even the most jaded of music fans can find themselves swept away by the power, majesty and beauty of the Polyphonic Spree's live performances. More than two dozen beaming faces strong, the adventurous rock band is led by charismatic singer Tim DeLaughter, who it seems has envisioned it as a cross between gospel choir, the Up With People inspirational troupe and overall karmic force for good -- or at least good vibrations.
On "Together We're Heavy," the Dallas group's sophomore effort, there's a hint -- unfortunately only a hint -- of the effect the band produces in a live setting. The songs are jaunty, bright and bouncy, filled with uplifting messages and tributes to the power of love. It is a joyful collection -- 10 heartfelt hymns to happiness and holiness. But through no real fault of its own, it doesn't come close to capturing the experience of seeing the band live. The difference is akin to reading about a violent thunderstorm and feeling the walls of your house shake and shiver as the rain slashes down on the roof.
That said, the group's evangelical enthusiasm still comes through, especially on the mouthful of an opening track, "A Long Day Continues / We Sound Amazed." Other songs are intensely tuneful and melodic, including "Hold Me Now," which brings to mind the "Sgt. Pepper"-era Beatles. The album's best song, "Two Thousand Places," is also the best example of a song that benefits much more from the live experience. "You gotta be good / You gotta be strong / You gotta be two thousand places at once" doesn't sound like much of a chorus, but standing in front of the bursting-at-the-seams group when it channels the spirit of the song, well, that experience can be transforming.
-- Joe Heim
There is a moment in a recent episode of MTV's reality series "The Ashlee Simpson Show" when the newly minted singer is asked if she wants her album-in-progress to sound like Jessica Simpson's (they're sisters; you might have heard), and her eyes widen in horror. Although this is a perfectly understandable reaction, it's difficult to say whether the manufactured alt-rock lite of Ashlee's debut, "Autobiography," actually offers an improvement over her sister's sincerely gooey pop.
Ashlee, a 19-year-old singer-actress best known previously for her role on television's "7th Heaven," is being positioned as a more rough-and-tumble, Urban Outfitters version of Jessica. To that end, "Autobiography" is a mainstream pop album with a faux-rock feel; it has the sort of calculated toughness, that mixture of Top 40 slickness and simulated grit, found on recent "rock" offerings by Christina Aguilera and Pink.
Constructed by a team of producers and songwriters, the disc's primary reference point seems to have been Courtney Love circa "Celebrity Skin," perhaps the first time in history this has happened. Though everything on "Autobiography" has been produced and shellacked to within an inch of its life, Simpson (who is credited with co-writing every song here) seems to have an appealingly throaty voice and an agreeable -- if not exactly riveting -- presence. With the exception of a woeful foray into synthetic indie rock ("Undiscovered"), she improves the disc's lesser songs and does the better ones (such as the undeniably great "Surrender") no damage.
-- Allison Stewart
FRIENDS SEEN AND UNSEEN
Charlie Hunter Trio
This is guitarist Charlie Hunter's first trio recording in a decade, but it seldom sounds like a trio session. That's because Hunter has mastered the art of multitasking. Playing his signature eight-string ax, he produces single-note guitar and bass lines simultaneously. Employing electronic effects, he can simulate the sweeping resonance of a Hammond B-3 organ and produce showers of wah-wah tones that point to rock and funk guitar influences.
"Friends" certainly sounds cozy enough, though. It's brimming with conversational exchanges and casually unfolding improvisations. It helps that saxophonist-flutist John Ellis and drummer Derrek Phillips share the bandleader's tastes for spiky intervals, odd meters and stop-time rhythms.
After listening to just a few tracks, it becomes clear that Thelonious Monk, James Brown, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Jimi Hendrix are still on Hunter's shortlist of favorites. The opening cut, Ellis's "One for the Kelpers," mixes lopsided funk beats with sax lines that move from stumble to strut before giving way to pedal-driven guitar flourishes. Hunter's "Freedom Tickler" is a strange brew of stubborn vamp and New Orleans shuffle, with Ellis favoring tart tones and Hunter creating looping designs. Then there's "Lulu's Crawl," an outre lounge theme that could have been composed after a long night of listening to Monk and Tom Waits.
Some of the melodies and rhythms on the album seem ironed out by comparison, allowing for the flute-tinted lyricism heard on "Darkly" and for the blues-tinged cover of "Soweto's Where It's At," a bittersweet homage composed by pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. But for the most part, "Friends" boasts a curiously textured charm and kinetic pulse that's hard to resist.
-- Mike Joyce